For centuries the oft-forgotten Unseen God has seemed distant and uncaring, but when the Realm is threatened by the all-conquering armies from Jerika, an ancient oracle is triggered. Now this foretelling is the only hope of salvation and its fulfilment lies in the trembling hands of a reluctant soldier, a princess and an infant marked by prophecy.
Set in a vivid medieval world, The Shadow of His Hand begins an epic struggle between good and evil, full of danger, romance and despair. Those caught in the grip of destiny will be required to sacrifice all, but even that may not be enough.
Fredrick had forgotten about the Selection. That explained all the extra traffic. He looked behind him. Travellers and their goods were piling up across the street, the log jam becoming more disastrous by the moment. Just when he thought it would have been better to stay in bed, he noticed an opening between two shop walls over to his left. From a distance, he guessed at its width. It might be wide enough for him to scramble through, maybe. From where he was, he could see that the laneway was blocked off by a feeble fence, but that could be easily dislodged. If he followed it down past the shops, it would lead to a back alley and he might be able to skirt the roadblock entirely.
He hesitated. It was easy to get lost traversing the Home City’s infamous back alleys. Corozon was vast yet intricate, and years of experience had taught him that the alleys never led where you thought they would. But hemmed in by the whining crowd as he was, and with the heat raising his ire, he suddenly felt a renewed desperation to get to his shift. It was either that or have his shoes melt on the cobblestones.
He battled his way over to the rickety fence, gently jostling out of his way those that would not budge. To those who scowled, he apologised sincerely. It grained him to have others cursing him, it was not in his nature to be rude or abrasive, but there was nothing for it. It had to be done.
Pausing before the fence, he peered into the dark narrow passageway. He was convinced he would end up getting himself lost, but as he saw it, the path was clear and there was no other option. Besides, he had not irritated all those people behind him for nothing.
One heavy boot applied direct to its centre easily accounted for the flimsy fence. Twenty-nine side steps later and there he was, standing alone in your typical Corozonian side alley. He would have to remember to return and fix that fence after his shift, assuming he ever made it back.
He looked around at the unfamiliar space. As expected, it was a chaotic mess of steps, barrels, washing lines and other discarded stuffs. People used these alleys as garbage dumps mostly. Only the poor and the homeless frequented their confines. The grassless ground was dry and dusty, and something nearby was an affront to his sense of smell - probably whatever the black and white cat was munching on in the corner. There were no people in his way however, and that was the small victory he was hoping for.
He readjusted his collar and headed in the direction he thought should lead him past the overturned carriage. Immediately, he appreciated the cooler air of the shadowed alleyways. Every dozen or so steps a side alley would disappear into the gloom. He took note of each of them, trying to remember something peculiar about each one. If he needed to backtrack he could ill afford to turn down the wrong lane and lose his bearings altogether.
On reaching a larger four-way intersection he looked to his right and thought it might be time to head down the snaking path and re-join the main street. But seeing that these alleys were more or less deserted, and their formation relatively simple, he opted to wait until the next right turn before heading back.
He lifted his foot to continue.
A scream echoed down the alley to his left.
His heart skipped. That was no ordinary scream.
He peered in the direction from which it came. A cold gust of wind blustered into his face. A line of clothes that had been strung up between houses, lifted for a brief moment and he saw what looked like a group of men standing over a woman. Their backs were to him, but he saw the weapons they wielded; long shiny daggers. Those were not children’s toys.
‘Elan, save me.’ He had spent the better part of his youth avoiding trouble. Though he was tall, he was not big. His childhood friends had taunted that he would always win his fights by at least twenty paces, and that was the truth of it. When clever words failed or a big mean friend was nowhere in sight, his skinny little legs were all he could rely on. Why bother to suffer all the bruises and cuts of a fistfight when you could run and live to run another day.
The drying line of clothes fell back down. Fredrick dropped his head and listened. The scream did not repeat. Instead, a pregnant silence hugged the walls. Maybe the girl was not in trouble at all. Maybe he had imagined it.
Yes, that was it, just a big misunderstanding. Those men were probably her family, they were playing a game. He should probably leave them to it.
He turned and lifted his foot again, but the shrill call for help returned. This time it was desperate, ragged. The panicked voice echoed off the walls and drilled deep into his ears.
Blood surging, pulse racing, Fredrick looked down the alley again, but there were too many obstructions. He could not see what was going on.
‘Help, somebody, ple …’ Someone muffled the girl’s cries, but he could still hear her, struggling, kicking.
Fredrick felt sick. His empty stomach turned over on itself. As the commotion rattled through his bones he looked down again, as if to inspect himself, measure himself. This was precisely why he wore his brown shirt over the top of his uniform. He did not want to get involved in stuff like this.
‘It’s tradition,’ said mother, ‘the way it’s always been done. ‘Tis the king’s right to choose any lady he fancies. In the days of old he could pluck them from anywhere, whether they reciprocated his feelings or not. At least now, the Selection is confined to women who are willing. It’s quite romantic. A once-in-a-generation event.’
‘Willing? More like desperate.’ Jaithe smiled at her sister.
‘Don’t you belittle your sister because she has ambition. She will make a fine High Queen.’
Jaithe did not bother to voice her disagreement again. Elan save the Realm if Bekka won the High King’s heart. She would be twisting events to suit her whims before one could say, ‘annulment, annulment.’
‘Jaithe, my pet,’ said Father, through a yawn. ‘You know that if I got to choose the High Queen, I would choose you.’
Mother frowned. ‘That’s not helping, Theobald.’
Father grinned in spite of her and twinkled a secret wink in Jaithe’s direction. He was a keeper.
Just then, the carriage pulled to a halt. The Rillingsleyan Ambassadorial Residence loomed high out their window. An honour guard of eight soldiers bearing familiar yellow flags waited on the forecourt steps. Yellow clad servants cheered a new carriage’s arrival and hoisted white flower petals into the air. The King of Rillingsley must have been eager to have one of his girls win the Selection. No expense was being spared.
‘I could get used to this,’ said Bekka.
‘I wouldn’t,’ mumbled Jaithe as she alighted, then stretched. It felt good to have their long journey behind them. Though the countryside had been pleasant, the grasses greening nicely the further north they ventured, travel was tiring, and Jaithe preferred having tasks completed. It was her nature.
As she straightened her silver dress, she scrutinised the glistening towers of the royal palace. From where they would be staying, she felt as if she could reach out and touch them. They were breathtaking, that was undeniable, but she felt comfortable in the notion that her sister would never be calling them home. Bekka was not the beauty she thought she was, no matter how many farm boys she could seduce. Jaithe was taller, slimmer and her dark hair, longer and glossier. If anything she was too tall, mother would say, an embarrassing barrier for some of her potential suitors. But her height was of no consequence on this trip, for she would not be throwing herself at the High King.
Father stepped out of the carriage and gave her a kiss, his whiskered face tickling her cheek. ‘Enjoy the week darling. We’ll be heading back home before you know it.’
Jaithe smiled. Father was an intelligent man. He knew the odds of Bekka becoming the next High Queen were slimmer than slim.
There he was. The stranger, head down and hunched forward, his hands tied behind the large beam that supported the barn’s angled roof. The skylight illuminated his eerily still body in a soft glow, like he was the star performer in a play that was about to begin. The blanket wrapped around his lower body was not enough to keep him warm. His bare feet poked through the bottom of it and rested on a small pile of hay.
Jenna stepped close. He was a tall man, muscular too, she had noticed when Pa carried him away. Blonde hair and blue eyes were not common in Rillingsley. He was likely a native of a Winnera or some other far northern kingdom. Yes, Jenna herself had straw hair, but she had green eyes, that combination was common enough around here.
Concern furrowed her brow. The man sat awfully still. Was he still breathing? She leaned in close and turned her ear to his nose. With his face and chest covered in shadow it was hard to know if they were moving. She thought she could hear a tiny trickle of breath siphoning in and out of his nostrils.
The man moved his head.
Jenna squealed and cartwheeled backwards, her heart in her mouth. Her sharp squeak woke him up. He blinked several times and peered into the darkness.
‘Hello? Is somebody there?’ he whispered.
Jenna remained still, afraid to answer. Suddenly she did not feel so brave. This was a mistake, she should not be here. What if this man really could use magic?
‘Please, help me. I need water.’ His voice was hesitant, full of fear. It broke Jenna’s heart.
She ignored the warnings in her head which bade her to run. Summoning her nerve, she stepped forward into the light. ‘It’s me, Jenna. I helped you recover last night. You probably don’t remember me.’ She stood with one eye on the door, ready to flee at the first sign of danger.
The man scrunched his face and blinked up at her. ‘Yes, I remember. Thank you. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Jenna.’
Jenna liked his voice. It was soft and warm like that of a travelling minstrel, his accent definitely northern. She did not mind that either, she decided.
‘What is your name? Who are you?’ she asked. ‘Was it you who caused that fire?’
‘I do not know. My name, I cannot recall.’
‘Everybody knows their own name. What is it? Tell me and I’ll fetch you some water.’
The man bowed his head. He looked defeated. ‘Please believe me. I cannot remember who I am. And how I am here, I do not know.’
Jenna chewed on her lip. She wanted to believe him, but she had to remain cautious. ‘You’re going to have to do better than that. Grandma wants you dead. The fire you started killed my Uncle Braden.’
‘Fire? That could not have been my doing,’ he growled, but not angrily.
‘Maybe you didn’t, but you were in it and you didn’t get burned. How is that possible? Are you a magician?’ She did her best to keep her tone non-accusatory. She wanted to show this man that she was on his side.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘A magician. You know, someone who can control other people and make spells and stuff.’
‘I have no idea what subject you refer to. I have not heard of these....magicians.’ Was that a tear glistening down his cheek?